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how to pick mushrooms in the wild

Foraging in October: which wild mushrooms can you eat?

 
October is the season for wild mushroom hunting. The fruiting bodies of many species flourish in autumn with the return of the cooler, wetter weather. It’s fair to say, as a nation, we’ve historically feared fungi rather than seen them as food. And for good reason – there are many incidents of mushroom poisoning each year. But the popularity of fungal forays continues to rise. And if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll be richly rewarded. But please remember that fungi are also an important part of the woodland ecosystem so don’t overdo it! Leave plenty behind for wildlife and follow our top wild mushroom picking tips below. Did you know? There are over a hundred good, edible species growing in the UK.
 

Wild mushroom picking tips

 
  • Don’t collect too much. Other species eat mushrooms too and they play an important ecological role. Some of our woods are sadly being over picked for wild mushrooms. Picking for commercial use is not allowed in any of our woods. On some sites we prefer you not to pick for personal use either. Always check before you go out.
 
  • Know what you’re picking – edible mushrooms can be confused with poisonous ones.
 
  • Mushroom identification takes skill and practice – get a great ID book specifically for fungi.
 
  • Choose species that aren’t easy to mix up with poisonous fungi – like the ones mentioned in this blog.
 
  • Check whether any special cooking or handling is required.
 
  • If you’re in any doubt confirm the identity with an expert or don’t eat them.
 
  • Don’t eat lots of new species all at once – even if you know what they are. Some people can be sensitive or have allergies.
 
  • Don’t rely on common names – sometimes the same common name can refer to many different species.
 
 
Can’t tell the difference between the deadly and the delectable? Mushroom identification is a challenge, so it’s better to stick to the supermarket if you’re not sure when it comes to foraged mushrooms.
 

Bay bolete (Imleria badia)

 
Bay bolete showing the bluish-grey bruising that you’ll find after lightly pressing the underside Credit: Frank Hecker / Alamy Stock Photo Its scientific name ‘badia’ means chestnut brown and refers to the colour of its cap. The common name is probably also derived from the colour of the cap, like the coat of a bay horse. It’s an excellent edible mushroom. What it looks like: the rounded cap is 4–15cm wide and is light to dark brown, smooth and slightly sticky when wet. The flesh is white or slightly yellow. The stem is smooth and cylindrical and is streaked with the same colour as the cap. On the cap underside are small yellowish pores that bruise bluish-grey when injured or pressed. Don’t confuse it with: it’s not that easily confused with other species except for other boletes, which are generally safe. Avoid boletes that have red colouring on the mushroom (stem, pores or cap) or if they turn vivid blue immediately after they’ve been sliced vertically with a knife. Where to find it: look for it between August to November on the ground, or on decaying tree stumps. One mushroom can make an excellent meal for two because they are large and chunky. How to use it: it’s better when young as the flesh is firmer. They can be eaten in the same way as the more familiar penny bun (Boletus edulis) and dried too. It’s comparable in flavour and apparently has the advantage of being less frequently infested with maggots.
Beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica)
 
Look for beefsteak fungus low on the trunks of oak trees and stumps. Credit: Arterra Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo Also known as ox tongue fungus, it’s not difficult to see how it got its name. When young it resembles a tongue poking out of a tree trunk, and as it matures it looks more like a piece of liver! This fungus causes brown rot in trees which gives the timber a rich colour known as ‘brown oak’ which is sought after by furniture makers. What it looks like: this bracket fungus can reach a diameter of up to 25cm with a thickness of 6cm. It exudes a watery blood-like latex. The upper surface is deep red and its underside is covered in tiny pores and is a pale creamy colour that bruises deep red-brown. Don’t confuse it with: you’re not likely to confuse this species with anything else. Where to find it: it’s quite a common fungus – look for it late summer to autumn close to the ground on oak trunks and stumps. You could also find it on sweet chestnut. How to use it: when sliced, its flesh has a marbled texture a bit like braising steak and it drips red fluid that can easily be mistaken for blood. It has a strongly acidic, sour flavour and rubbery texture. Sliced very thinly, young beefsteak can be eaten raw in salads. If you’re cooking chunks of it, it may take a fair bit of simmering to soften. Some foragers say it’s best cooked in creamy sauce to temper its acidity.
 

Charcoal burner (Russula cyanoxantha)

 
Look for charcoal burner on the ground in broadleaved woodland. Credit: Frank Hecker / Alamy Stock Photo Charcoal burner is a beautiful looking mushroom that tastes good too. It’s common in woods from summer through to autumn. What it looks like: a firm, rounded cap 7-12 cm across. Cap colour is very variable, with violets, greys, pinks, greens and yellows, making it well camouflaged against the woodland floor. It has a thick white stem. The gills under the cap are white, soft and flexible. Don’t confuse it with: the fragile russula (Russula fragilis) which is also very variable in colour but is hot, bitter and inedible, and grows under broadleaved trees and conifers. If you’re not experienced in mushroom identification, the russula (also known as brittlegill) family of mushrooms can be very daunting! A few will give you a tummy upset but they are not deadly. Where to find it: look for it on the ground in broadleaved woods, mostly beech and oak. How to use it: excellent, firm-textured mushroom and this species is considered to be the best of the edible russulas as it doesn’t go soggy when cooked. It has a crunchy, nutty texture and a mild taste. Sautée with onions and garlic, serve with meat dishes or use for omelettes, soups and stews.
 

Field mushroom (Agaricus campestris)

 
Field mushroom is one of the most widely eaten fungi in the UK. Credit: REDA &CO srl / Alamy Stock Photo Field mushroom has declined over the years due to habitat loss caused by modern farming practices and is now quite rare in some parts of the UK. What it looks like: a domed cap, flattening with age, up to 10 cm across. White silky skin overhangs the edge of the cap. The white stem has a small ring, and tapers at the base. Deep pink gills turn brown then almost black as it matures. It smells pleasantly mushroomy. Don’t confuse it with: the poisonous yellow stainer (Agaricus xanthodermus). It looks similar but bruises bright yellow and smells of antiseptic. Where to find it: in short grass on lawns, parks and pastures, usually in rings. How to use it: field mushroom is very versatile – use how you would any supermarket mushroom. Great in risottos, omelettes, soups, sauces, casseroles and with your fry up.
 

Penny bun (Boletus edulis)

 
Penny bun is often considered the most delicious of all wild mushrooms. Credit: Adrian Muttitt / Alamy Stock Photo Penny bun is also known as porcini, porcino and cep. It’s one of the most sought-after wild mushrooms in Europe with a fine flavour and texture. What it looks like: the cap looks like a crusty bread roll, brown and dimpled with a paler edge, 7-30 cm across. Underneath it is white with fine pores that age to yellow then turn green and spongy. The stem is thick and swollen, pale brown with a white network pattern on the upper part. Don’t confuse it with: the similar-looking bitter bolete (Tylopilus felleus) which isn’t poisonous but tastes awful. The poisonous Devil’s bolete (Rubroboletus satanas) has a bright red stem and is very rare. Where to find it: it grows from the ground near oak, beech, birch and coniferous trees. It prefers open ground particularly wood edges and grassy clearings. How to use it: considered the most delicious of all wild mushrooms, it’s best when fully developed but still young. Use in any recipe but it’s amazing in risottos and omelettes. It can be sliced thinly and dried on a warm radiator or oven (with the door open to allow the moisture to escape).
 
Many of us spend a long time learning how to identify these plants and mushrooms correctly but often wonder: Where is foraging allowed?  Can I pick fruit from street trees? Is it illegal to pick wild garlic?
 
You could inadvertently be damaging the local ecology or breaking the law, so you must know your rights, restrictions and responsibilities with regards foraging in order to keep you on the safe side.
 
The foraging laws in the UK are a bit confusing to say the least. This guide is intended to help you understand all you need to know about the British law and forage without getting into trouble.
 

What can I legally forage?

 
Within Section 4 (Property) of the Theft Act (1968) (England and Wales only, though similar in Scotland) you will find the following:
 
“subsection (3) A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.”
 
This means that you can pick anything growing wild (the 4 f’s: fruit, flowers, fungi and foliage) on any land as long as it is for personal consumption. However, picking cultivated crops or collecting wild food for commercial purposes would be considered theft.
 
This provision does not apply to seaweed or if the plant or mushroom in question is listed as endangered species.
 
Note that the quotation above refers twice to “any land” and highlights “although not in possession of the land”. This takes us to the next point.
 
Where can I legally forage?
 
As stated in the Section 4 (Property) of the Theft Act (1968) (England and Wales only) previously mentioned, you are allowed to pick wild plants and fungi on any land. However, it’s essential that you get the landowner’s permission to go onto private land.
 
Now imagine that you are picking blackberries somewhere, but you haven’t asked for permission to enter that land. You would not be committing a criminal offence doing so, because foraging is not considered theft. However you would be trespassing, and therefore committing a civil wrong.
 
A landowner who confronts you whilst trespassing on his land is unable to confiscate the contents of your basket, as they belong to you. However, you still must leave the land at the nearest opportunity.
 
Bear in mind that most of the land in this country is privately owned. Do not assume a city park or a footpath in a field will always be common land. It will most likely be private property that you are granted access to. This means you will be bound to a certain set of rules.
 
Although farmland is definitely private property, you will always find public footpaths running around, sometimes bridleways and byways as well. Those are generally considered fair game as long as you observe the Countryside Act.
 
Can I pick fruit from street trees and shrubs in the UK? Most of the roads and country lanes and the adjoining verges are owned by the Highways Agency and the local authorities. Additionally, most of the pavements are owned by the local council.
 
There are some cases where having to ask for permission would be a bit foolish and so common sense must be exercised; it’s not practical to phone your council to pick some apples off a street tree or nettle leaves in a derelict garden.
 
Please note that in Scotland, the universal right to roam is enshrined in law and codified into the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. This permits the use of all land, public or private, for recreation, education and access with just a few restrictions. Those access rights are only granted if exercised responsibly.
 

CROW Act and Right to Roam

 
To make things more complicated, there is another piece of important legislation (applied to England and Wales only): Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act, 2000.
 
CROW confers the people a “right to roam”, which essentially grants unrestricted access to designated areas of the countryside. This includes upland areas, downlands, heath and mountain, as well as land voluntarily opened up by a landowner.
 
It was opened to the public for “recreational purposes”, which CROW does not define clearly. There are a fair amount of things you are not allowed to do in CROW Act land, but the forager will be affected by the following clause:
 
“Section 2(1) does not entitle a person to be on any land if, in or on that land, he – (l)Intentionally removes, damages or destroys any plant, shrub, tree or root or any part of a plant, shrub, tree or root.”
 
However, any rights of way that run through designated land are not part of the designation, because rights of way generally come with the right to forage.
 
Local byelaws restricting foraging
 
Check local byelaws and research the areas you go to, reading any available signs, as some might ban foraging.
 
Byelaws can be passed by councils, National Trust and government conservation bodies such as Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
 
Some byelaws apply to the Royal Parks of London. They include Hyde Park, Richmond, St James, Greenwich or Kensington Gardens among others. You are not allowed to “interfere with any plant or fungus”.
 
 
This place has long been subject to debate in the foraging circles due to the annual articles published in the newspapers reporting a perceived issue with commercial foraging that was never proved in the first place.
 
New Forest is often mentioned after the Forestry Commission placed some signs some years ago suggesting mushroom foraging was banned in the park. Visitors are in fact able to forage for personal consumption under the law and it was pointed out that foresters confiscating public’s baskets might constitute theft.
 
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) legislation and Natural Reserves
 
There are thousands of them across the country. Many of these are private with no public access, but some are open to the public.
 
A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is a conservation designation indicating a protected area in the UK, notified for their biological interest. The aim is to help protecting certain species or entire habitats.
 
The legislation that oversees SSSI’s in the UK is the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), amended in Scotland by the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.
 
There is usually a list of ‘PDOs’ (Potentially Damaging Operations) that are attached to each site. These activities are not necessarily banned but express permission from the government agency and landowner is required in advance. Documents are available on request from Natural England, but you can check them online. (England only).
 
These lists very often forbid the ‘removal of plants’, for the most part the species which made it interesting in the first place. The authorities need to prove that you were damaging the species concerned.
 
However, in Scotland it is illegal to collect wild plants or fungi on a National Nature Reserve (NNR) or a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) without the express permission of Scottish Natural Heritage and the written permission of the landowner.
 
Then you might be wondering. In the rest of the UK, can you forage in National parks? It is not forbidden to forage in Natural Reserves. In fact, some conservation organisations actively promote foraging on their reserves. Just familiarise yourself with protected species and stick to the rules.
 

Endangered plant species UK law

 
There are many plants and animals listed as protected species under the ‘Schedule 8’ of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and it is a criminal offence to damage them in any way. This applies to anyone, including the landowner.
 
Although none of the species listed within the Schedule 8 are recommended on this site, one must always be aware of such species and that they may be inadvertently damaged by careless foraging.
 
It’s worth mentioning the ‘Red Data List´ UK, a nationally compiled database of rare species. They are maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and assess the risk of extinction of wild species, from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’. You should familiarise with them and avoid picking any of these species.
 
You should also be aware that some non-native and invasive species are subject to strict controls and therefore you not collect them before familiarising yourself with the impact of their spread. E.g. Japanese knotweed.
 
Is it illegal to dig up plants in the UK?
 
As seen earlier, the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) states:
 
“if any person  […] not being an authorised person, intentionally uproots any wild plant not included in that Schedule, he shall be guilty of an offence.”
 
Therefore it is unlawful to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier. For this purpose, uproot is defined as to “dig up or otherwise remove the plant from the land on which it is growing.” The same protection is given to all plants in Northern Ireland, under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order, 1985.
 
This leaves roots of common plants like dandelion and burdock off the menu unless you get permission from the landowner. The same goes for wild garlic.
 

Is commercial foraging allowed?

 
It has been argued that commercial foraging for restaurants is a significant problem in the UK but it has never been proved, far from anecdotal evidence.
 
However, as stated earlier, under the Section 4 (Property) of the Theft Act (1968) it is illegal to pick wild food from private land without the landowner’s permission. Failure to do so becomes theft.
 
Commercial foragers own private land or are granted access to pick the wild ingredients from someone else’s land so they can sell the produce. They do not need a commercial foraging license.
 
What knives are legal to carry in the UK?
 
When picking mushrooms, a knife comes handy to cut fungi clean. However some people worry they could be stopped by an officer and get into trouble for that.
 

The law says the following:

 
“It is illegal to carry a knife in public without good reason, unless it has a folding blade with a cutting edge 3 inches long or less”.
 
Therefore, a Swiss Army knife or similar would be recommended for this task to keep you on the safe side. Carrying a mushroom field guide in your rucksack might back your story too.
 

Conclusion & Disclaimer

 
Please note that this is the understanding of a passionate forager rather than a legal professional. It should not be relied upon as the definitive law. That is why I have quoted paragraphs from the legislation and linked to the government’s official pages for further reference.
 
Laws and regulations are constantly changing and they may vary between the four countries that make up the UK (Also the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not covered by UK law). Always check the local byelaws affecting your area.
 
I know this all seem a little bit daunting, but don’t panic and try not to worry too much. In general terms, if you pick within reach of a public right of way and it’s growing wild… fair game.
 
A bit of common sense goes a long way and a sensible approach to foraging, respecting the country code will always keep you on the right path.
 

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